Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sleuthing through “Mailbox Mysteries” crafted in Cannon Falls November 15, 2021

I used a magnifying glass to study this vintage Cannon Falls area map, among clues in the “Gangster’s Gold” mystery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

THE “Mailbox Mysteries” SIGN POSTED in the front window of a downtown Cannon Falls insurance agency, drew my interest. I’ve always appreciated a good mystery and I wanted in.

So I headed to the nearby library, home base for the mysteries, to inquire about the featured Gangster’s Gold mystery. Within a week I received an introductory letter about notorious gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz and his $50 million treasure hidden somewhere in the Cannon River Valley.

Background and clues. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

Channeling my inner Nancy Drew, I determined to locate that treasure. If only my sleuthing skills matched my enthusiasm. Right from the start, I couldn’t figure out how to fold, and then use, a Tri-Hexa-Flexa-Coder to de-code a secret message. I needed help. My friend Stephani, who once considered becoming a private investigator but stuck to family genealogy, solved the folding/coding problem.

I realized solving this mystery would not be easy. Exactly as “Mailbox Mysteries” creator Matthew Stelter, Teen and Adult Services Librarian in Cannon Falls, likely intended. He created this interactive mystery series last winter as an outreach program for library patrons stuck at home during COVID-19 and, as he said, “tired of a life lived entirely through a computer screen.” At that time, the library building was closed to visitors. All of the clues for his mysteries are sent via US mail to the home-based investigators.

Eventually, Stelter crafted six mysteries—five for adults and a math-based set, “Postcard Puzzles,” for kids 12 and under. A bit overwhelmed by managing all of those mysteries, Stelter has since tweaked and downsized the “Mailbox Mysteries” to three.

The final clues to locate the hidden treasure. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

His past experience developing escape rooms and murder mysteries shows in “Mailbox Mysteries.” I admire his ability to craft a fictional mystery rooted in facts with added local elements. He uses newspaper clippings, photos, letters, historical documents, maps, coded messages (he created the code for the challenging Hexa-Flexagon) and more in believable story lines.

A seemingly authentic newspaper article, for example, references the long-ago Fleckenstein Brewery in Faribault and a possible connection to the underworld. Turns out that story was pure fiction as is gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz’s connection to Minnesota. He never had ties here, although many gangsters did. Rather, he lived in New York, where his treasure is rumored to be hidden. Schultz died in a gang shoot-out.

So much to consider in solving “Gangster’s Gold.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

In the end, I found the location of the $50 million treasure after hours of dissecting documents—yes, I became a bit obsessed—and using a magnifying glass to better view details on a map. Stelter rewarded me with a personalized Certificate of Commendation and advised me to bring a shovel to dig deep for the buried treasure.

These three items were in the first mailing of “Spy School” mystery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

Now I’m on to the next “Mailbox Mysteries,” Spy School. I’ve received my introductory letter, a brochure for the Vera Atkins Spy Academy and an encoded note warning that the school is compromised.

The arched entry to Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, upper campus, in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

VASA happens to be in Faribault, as printed in a brochure so professionally done that I would think the academy really existed if I didn’t recognize the photos of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Stelter lived at Shattuck for 10 years. I’m also semi-familiar with the campus so I’ll see if that familiarity helps in solving the mystery. As in Gangster’s Gold, I expect this mystery writer to weave more local details into the fictional story line.

While I await the next set of clues, I invite you to join the team of private investigators. Stelter welcomes all Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes types to register by November 30. Simply email your request for Spy School along with your name and complete snail mail address to: mstelter (at) selco (dot) info

Be forewarned, though, that these mysteries are challenging and time-consuming. Yet so worth the satisfaction of solving and of reaching into your mailbox to find, not a bill, but rather the efforts of a talented and creative librarian.

The third “Mailbox Mysteries,” Cypher Cabin, will be available starting December 1.

Good luck, sleuths.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finally, well into COVID-19, I go to the library August 11, 2020

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’VE PREVIOUSLY POSTED about my deep love of libraries tracing back to my childhood. As a child, I had limited access to books. My small rural Minnesota community had no library. Nor did my elementary school, which sourced books from the county library 20 miles away in Redwood Falls. On occasion, I would be among students selected to board a school bus to travel to that library and return with books temporarily borrowed for our school. I loved those opportunities to browse and choose.

 

The LFL installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe in July 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Today my hometown of Vesta still does not have a public library. County bookmobile service ended long ago with budget cuts. But, thanks to my efforts and those of locals and the generosity of Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol, a LFL sits outside the Vesta Cafe with additional materials inside. Bol gifted the mini library to my hometown in July 2012.

 

A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Fast forward eight years and these mini libraries are seemingly everywhere. And during a global pandemic, especially when public libraries closed for a period (some still with restricted hours), the LFLs proved invaluable to book lovers like me. I found a few good books to read, but still longed to step inside a public library with an abundance of reading materials. That happened three weeks ago.

 

This photograph was taken last September (pre pandemic) outside the Northfield Public Library during a cultural event there.

 

Randy and I headed up to neighboring Northfield on a recent Saturday afternoon to look for and check out items at the library. Unlike Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, the Northfield Public Library reopened months ago (May 26) for regular hours that include evenings and weekends. That makes it accessible to everyone. Masking, social distancing and other protocols are in place and required to protect patrons and staff.

 

The books and magazines I checked out from the Northfield library.

 

I arrived at the NPL with a list of books I wanted. I wasn’t sure computers would be available to access the card catalog. Because I am unfamiliar with the lay-out of the library, I needed help to find some titles and staff generously assisted. I left with a bag full of seven books and two magazines.

 

 

Since then, I’ve been happily reading my stash of Minnesota-authored books. Only one—Love Thy Neighbor, A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock—was not on my list. I spotted the book on a shelf of library staff picks, this one recommended by Sue. I read the book in a single day. One day. That’s how good this book is and how necessary to read. Especially today when headlines daily reveal instances of hatred, racism and so much more dividing our country. Insensitive, inflammatory, just plain horrible words and actions, including in southern Minnesota.

In summary, Love Thy Neighbor is the story of a medical doctor who relocates his family from a busy eastern urban setting to rural southwestern Minnesota to practice medicine as he desires, with a deeper personal connection to patients. Initially, all goes well and Dr. Virji and his family find themselves settling in, accepted, enjoying their new life in rural Minnesota. But then the November 2016 election happens and things begin to change. And that is the focus of this book—the shift in attitudes toward Muslims, how that negativity affected this small town family doctor and his family, and what he did about it.

I’d encourage you to read this enlightening book that recaps Virji’s struggles and the community talks he gave to help those in his small Minnesota community (and elsewhere) to understand his faith and the challenges he faces in a more toxic national environment.

 

 

Once I finished that book, I moved onto another environment—into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota in A Year in the Wilderness, Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters by Amy and Dave Freeman. It’s been an enjoyable escape into the remote wild, to a place I’ve only ever visited through others. The Freemans, like Dr. Virji, wrote their book with a purpose. To educate, to enlighten and to protect the BWCAW from sulfide-ore copper mining. Incredible photos enhance this detailed documentation of living for a year in the wild. I’d highly recommend this title also.

 

I especially enjoy reading books by Minnesotans and appreciate the Northfield library tagging these books with Minnesota-shaped art.

 

The remaining books in my library book stash are mysteries/mystery thrillers, my preferred genre. I quickly read Desolation Mountain by one of my favorite Minnesota authors, William Kent Krueger. Interestingly enough, that fictional story in the Cork O’Connor series also references potential mining near the BWCAW.

New-to-me author Chris Norbury’s books, Castle Danger and Straight River, also connect to the northeastern Minnesota wilderness. And southern Minnesota, where the main character returns to the family farm in Straight River. I always enjoy reading books that include familiar places. Norbury lives in Owatonna and references area communities. And those of you who grew up in this region recognize that the book titles are actually an unincorporated community in northeastern Minnesota and a river here in southern Minnesota.

I’m determined to stretch my reading beyond the seed mystery love planted decades ago through Nancy Drew books. To that end, I appreciate when library staff pull and showcase books they recommend. Like Dr. Virji’s book.

And I appreciate libraries. I look forward to the day when Faribault’s library opens again for regular hours. Currently, it’s open by appointment only, for 30-minute Browse-and-Go Visits between 10 am – 5 pm weekdays or for No-Contact Curbside Pickup. Because Randy is gone to work between those hours, he has no opportunity to get books locally. And so we will continue our trips to Northfield.

Now, you may wonder why these two communities within 20 minutes of each other and in the same county differ in library reopening. I expect it has much to do with numbers, usage and demographics as it relates to COVID-19. My county of Rice, according to information posted by Rice County Public Health on August 7, has had 1,020 lab confirmed cases* of COVID since March. That breaks down to 830 cases in Faribault. Northfield has had far fewer at 141. The balance of 49 cases are spread throughout other communities in Rice County.

I can only speculate that numbers factor into local library decisions about operations. But who knows? I am a word person, not a numbers person.

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FYI: My friend Sue Ready, a book lover and writer who lives in the Minnesota northwoods, is a good source of info about Minnesota-authored books. She reviews books on her Ever Ready blog, Click here. Sue also heads up the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack, MN., which brings together Minnesota artists and authors. This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.

* The number of COVID-19 cases in Rice County as of Monday, August 10, were 1,038.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling